International scientists are warning that the irreversible thawing of permafrost due to climate change could lead to a new public health threat.
In an article posted to the preprint repository bioRxiv – which has yet to be peer-reviewed – the French, Russian and German researchers said they had revived and uncovered 13 new “zombie viruses” isolated from seven different ancient Siberian permafrost samples.
One virus had been dormant and frozen underwater for nearly 50,000 years.
The authors found that the pathogens remain infectious after tens of thousands of years.
As every virus requires the development of a specific vaccine, antiviral or medical response, the paper said it is legitimate to ponder the risk of ancient viral particles remaining infectious and getting back into circulation by the thawing of ancient permafrost layers.
Furthermore, the authors wrote that the biological hazard associated with reviving prehistorical amoeba-infecting viruses is “totally negligible” compared to the search for “paleoviruses” directly from permafrost-preserved remains of mammoths, woolly rhinoceros or prehistoric horses.
“Without the need of embarking on such a risky project, we believe our results with Acanthamoeba-infecting viruses can be extrapolated to many other DNA viruses capable of infecting humans or animals,” the paper noted, adding that it is likely that the thawing of permafrost eventually much older than 50,000 years will release unknown viruses upon thawing in the future.
“How long these viruses could remain infectious once exposed to outdoor conditions (UV light, oxygen, heat), and how likely they will be to encounter and infect a suitable host in the interval, is yet impossible to estimate. But the risk is bound to increase in the context of global warming when permafrost thawing will keep accelerating, and more people will be populating the Arctic in the wake of industrial ventures,” the group said.
Scientists have long warned that thawing permafrost will further contribute to the greenhouse effect.
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